Time To Call The Pros?

In this issue we explain the process of mastering and how you can do it yourself within your chosen DAW. But sometimes it’s best to get the pros in, and they don’t come more reputable than Optimum Mastering, which counts Portishead and Courtney Pine among its clients…

Shawn Joseph is the director at Bristol-based Optimum Mastering which has been providing a bespoke mastering service since 2004. With a specially created mastering suite – costing in excess of six figures to construct – plus many, many high-end pieces of hardware, it’s easy to see why you might choose its services over doing it yourself, especially when prices start at just £50 a track. MusicTech meets Shawn to discuss today’s mastering challenges and how technology has changed the production landscape…

“I started my career in 1990 at The Exchange in London and worked in various studios across London,” he explains. “I am originally from the South West, so when the opportunity came to move back I jumped at the chance.”

Optimum Mastering is based in Bristol’s Paintworks, an old paint factory which is now a thriving arts and media community. The main room was designed by Recording Architecture and built from the ground up in an eight-month period prior to Optimum opening in 2004.

“It’s a floating-floor construction with natural light designed specifically for mastering with our choice of monitor,” Shawn reveals. “It was a labour of love but it’s comfortable, accurate and vital in offering professional reference.”

Optimum Mastering has since established itself as one of the best mastering houses in the country, with a big list of high-profile clients (see box). Shawn puts this success down to both the facility and their experience: “I like to think it’s because of our musical knowledge across all genres and our empathetic approach,” he says. “We have a proven track record of successful releases and clients all across the globe who keep coming back. What’s more, no one is going to let you loose on their album unless they are confident you know what you are doing.”

High-end hardware

We quickly get into the nuts and bolts of the gear as Shawn runs through Optimum’s main components: “We have the latest Sadie 6 workstation with Cedar DeNoising including Retouch. Within the setup is a Prism Sound ADA-8 converter, Prism Maselec MEA-2 mastering EQ and Prism Maselec MLA-2 mastering compressor.

“The desk is one of a kind, offering the lowest possible profile between monitor and listener. All of the gear is housed in pods linked by steel tubing to carry the cabling. Everything I need is at arm’s length, metering is at eye level and horizontal surfaces are finished in NEXTEL Suede to cut down on reflections.

“We also use the TC Electronic System 6000 Mastering system,” Shawn continues. “I first used a TC Electronic M5000 in 1995. Creation Records and others were looking to duplicate some of the hotter CD levels coming back from the States. The M5000 was more than up to the task and I have used TC Electronic compressors and limiters ever since. I have a System 6000 module and use it every day. If you do need to put your foot down they can return a joyfully loud master without the tiring artefacts (if you use it carefully).”

And now to the all-important monitoring setup…

“I use PMC MB2-XBD monitors with OFC cable powered by Bryston 7B SST amps,” says Shawn. “Nearfields are PMC TB2s and Yamaha NS10Ms. Vinyl is cut on a lovingly restored Neumann VMS-70 cutting lathe with Neumann SAL74B amps.

“The hardware has not changed since we opened,” Shawn concludes on the gear front. “Although I would love to splash out on new toys, mastering is more about what you do with them, and often overlooked is the room itself, which sets us apart from refurbs.”

To which we neatly arrive at the mastering process…

Common problems

“As you might expect, the number one problem is lack of dynamic range,” Shawn replies, when asked about the most common problem he faces at Optimum. “If you crush everything on the mix buss or feel obliged to print louder than anyone else, there is no point sending a track to mastering. Usually we send it back, which is not great if you have a tight deadline, but we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t.

“I do appreciate that sometime a mix doesn’t sound finished without that little touch of SSL ‘glue’. But once transients are lost, I cannot get them back. By all means, if you need to normalize before you road test, go ahead, but please take off any of this additional processing before submitting to us.”

So has the advent of greater technology for all meant that mastering houses get better or worse mixes?

“Quality hasn’t really changed,” says Shawn. “I can get a great mix from a basic setup and a shocker from a big studio. More than anything, the advent of the project studio has made it possible for many more people to make and release music without the traditional structure of studio and record deal, which is great. Consequently, there is a little more ‘hand-holding’ but I don’t mind walking someone through the process if it shakes off some of the mystery that has been perpetuated for far too long.”

And solutions

So assuming that a track is not too compressed, how would a typical mastering session progress?

“As many sessions are unattended it will start with a consultation, either over the phone or by email,” says Shawn. “It is important for me to understand what the artist or producer is trying to achieve and where in the market they see themselves. Also, there may have been time or budget constraints which meant they were not happy with a particular element in the mix.

“As to the process,” Shawn continues, “in my opinion it is not enough to know which dither algorithm to use. Your chosen engineer must understand the genre before preparing a master for the market. If it’s an album, I will try to listen to the whole thing before trying to pull it together as a coherent piece of work. I might try different monitors and different volume levels.

“At this point I think more about the appropriate tools for the job in hand. I EQ most things in analogue before making further adjustments in digital. Personally, I use broad strokes to get me in the ball park and make ever-decreasing adjustments until I am happy with the balance. I’m not particularly averse to plug-ins but I reach for the outboard first and foremost.”

Shawn then details how the process varies according to musical type…

“Different genres will all have different objectives,” he says. “Dance music is usually designed to move feet, rock music often to knock you off your feet. We are lucky in that we cover both extremes and everything in-between. All require a different approach. Some may want a loud master, some may want the music to draw a listener in. Either way, I will try to preserve dynamic range as much as possible. That might sound like a bit of a contradiction when I do deliver something loud, but it is what keeps all music engaging. The way in which you achieve that in the session will be deciding on what to do first.”

The online option

As with many other mastering houses, Optimum has an online option and it’s very easy to access…

“There are real people at this end and we like to say hello first so do get in touch!” says Shawn. Indeed, it’s this service that Shawn believes is the future for professional mastering houses – with some caveats…

“It has opened us up to clients all over the world,” he says, “but I am wary of it becoming more automated because I believe a good mastering service is as much about human interaction as it is convenience. I don’t want a dropdown menu when I go for a haircut!

“Also, we are lucky to be Mastered For iTunes-accredited [see p16 for more on this] and I am excited at the prospect of listeners being able to enjoy ever-higher-resolution audio. It won’t happen overnight on a grand scale because of commercial considerations, but there are already smaller labels offering uncompressed, high-res downloads. As storage media becomes cheaper and bandwidths increase it won’t be long before listeners hear things completely as the artist intended.”

Finally, Shawn’s clearly picked up a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience and is keen to pass it on…

“Although I’m not done with engineering just yet, it’s important for me to give something back to the next generation of producers and engineers,” he says. “I am increasingly asked to pass on some knowledge and I already invite local colleges and workshops for tours and find it tremendously rewarding.”

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